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La Mano Verde: Vegan visionary

Let’s be honest: if it’s tasty, Françoise will eat anything. Fried intestines, horse tartare... even raw, vegan, gluten-free lasagne in the courtyard of a Ku’damm mini-mall. That’s where La Mano Verde started to convert Berlin to veganism.

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Photo by Cathrin Bach

Let’s be honest: if it’s tasty, I’ll eat anything. Fried intestines, horse tartare… even raw, vegan, gluten-free lasagne in the courtyard of a Ku’damm mini-mall, sandwiched between a posh hotel and a celebrity hair salon, if that’s what it takes.

That’s where French restaurateur Jean settled down with a mission: convert the world to veganism with his brand of super sharp, gourmet cuisine that reconciles art with science, health and taste.

Maybe the Kempinski Plaza isn’t the worst location for a vegan-raw food restaurant after all. Following a good preening, the feathered creatures that frequent the Udo Walz salon (like German actress Hannelore Elsner, whom Udo greets by falling to his knees and planting a chivalrous kiss on her hand) can easily hop over for a plant-based lunch, adding a bit of high-society glamour to a way of eating still considered alternative and bizarre by most people. “We took away every mention of the word ‘vegan’ from the menu,” says owner Jean, who believes the V-word conjures negative images of animal rights fanatics.

The well-connected citizen of the world (he used to run a huge establishment on London’s Leicester Square) tells me his pal Gerard Depardieu sent him photos of some blood-dripping meat when he heard Jean was embarking on a vegan adventure. One famous German leader snubbed his signature Green Smoothie (spinach, bananas, apples and kiwi) – she doesn’t like bananas. But many jetlagged celebs cherish his cuisine, almost one-of-a-kind on the European continent.

The interior of this temple of gourmet veganism is deceptively mainstream, in a hotel lobby kind of way. There’s no trace of funky hippie odours, but no glam either – just a whiff of parents and kids slurping up fresh coconut juice through straws. Most eaters seem to fit into the Kempinski Plaza setting: travelling businessmen, Gap-outfitted families. At a neighbouring table, two Americans in suits discuss raw-vegan cooking techniques and smoothie processors. If the food on their plates didn’t look so gorgeous, you’d be seriously scared off by the raw/gluten-free labels next to 80 percent of the items on offer.

Jean went vegan when living on Samui Island, a small paradise in the gulf of Thailand, and has been passionate about the health benefits of plant-based grub ever since. He might be a missionary, but he’s no fundamentalist. The full-blooded bon vivant confesses omnivorous tendencies (an occasional steak frites) if social occasion calls for it. He’s also the type of Frenchman for whom wine is a more critical fluid than water. But his life mission is to professionalise meatless gourmet dining and spread it across the world from his Berlin kitchen where, over the past few years, he’s already trained a small battalion of chefs in the precise art of raw cuisine (he’s now planning Living Food Academy directly upstairs).

For one, fake meat substances are banished from the menu, which is a relief. For Jean, tofu is just cheating. His ambition is to reinvent cuisine the way a mad scientist would reshape humanity with a set of new, difficult rules (no cooking, no animal products, delicate raw materials). This became evident with our first course, the Ravioli Blanc (€8.50, photo), razor-thin parsnip-pockets with a cashew ricotta filling served with fennel and apple salad, sprouts and pear arranged with artful precision in a lobster-shaped composition (or is it a mayfly?), an explosion of colour and texture, the crunch of raw veggies followed by the smoothness of cashew ricotta, the result of Jean’s ongoing effort to engineer the perfect vegan cheese.

The quiche (€8.50) was another work of art, visually more cylinder than pie, with two elegant chives poking out of it, wrapped in transparent carrot, filled with fennel, mushrooms and pine nut cream. Its flavour was dominated by dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives and the thyme that composed its base. Almost too beautiful to be touched, let alone chewed to pieces.

The main course, lasagne (€17.50) came next. The Napoleon-like monument of paper-thin veggie slices layered with cashew ricotta, bell pepper, olive concassé and dried tomatoes spent six hours in a food dehydrator and was delicious, but I must admit I craved some cooked starch at this point. A potato, some rice perhaps? Relief came in the form of a non-raw mushroom risotto so tasty one might forget it was vegan (maybe it was the white wine!). And there was the added feel-good factor of being told the fungi came from a nice mushroom lady near Potsdam.

Our dessert was the triple chocolate fudge (€7.50), another cooked delight which, according to Jean, the millionaire granddaughter of Hans Christian Andersen flies down from Copenhagen in her private jet for: a chocolate sponge cake, with chocolate cream, covered in chocolate sauce, all 84 percent cocoa.

If anything, La Mano Verde proves that animal-free doesn’t have to be a drab affair. Neophytes might leave their dinner with a slightly bubbly feeling in their bellies, but also a sense of what raw ‘cooking’ can achieve. I’m no nostalgic of the fruitarian diet of our primate ancestors, but the craftsmanship and unexpectedly sharp results made an impression on me. No, Jean, I wasn’t converted to the raw vegan creed, not just yet. But a chat over your adventurous life from Samui to Berlin over good wine will bring me back for more.